Anatomy of the Modern Cupcake

In the early 2000’s, suddenly cupcakes were everywhere: in coffeehouses, at wedding receptions, on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and at little shops in strip malls all across the country.  The cupcake became the new “it” dessert — a mini indulgence that the masses could enjoy with less guilt than, say, a whole slice of cake.

Here is my disclaimer: I love pie.  The warm, flaky crust or crumbly, graham cracker mixture delicately holding in a fruity or sweet filling.  I like a double-crust pie even more!

Cake, and its miniature spawn, the cupcake, are not my first choice when it comes to dessert.  However, if I’m going to eat cake (in any form), it had better be incredible.

If I happen to spend an hour or two in the kitchen baking, I work very hard to insure that the resulting cake is every bit worth the effort.  I have made a few different cakes on this blog that I am proud of … most recently, Orange Tres Leches Cake, Chocolate Depression Cake, and Sticky Toffee Pudding.  I know that the latter is really a pudding, but it tastes like cake.

Sadly, I have had more disappointing cupcakes than memorable ones since the beginning of the “cupcake craze.”  I have found that price is often no indication of quality.  There are, of course, exceptions, but nothing annoys me more than an overpriced dessert disaster.  Especially if it makes me think that I should’ve just rolled up my sleeves and gotten flour in my hair at home to make something worth eating!

I attribute much of my disappointment to the way that “modern” and “gourmet” cupcakes are made: big on frosting, small on cake and flavor.

Oh my goodness, can I just say something about frosting?  Sure, frosting is decadent and pretty, but does it really have to rival the beehive hairstyle in terms of height?  I shouldn’t have to squint at the bottom of a cupcake to confirm that, yes, there really is a tiny cake under there after all!

Bad frosting is like false advertising.  All flash and no substance.  For my tastes, 90% of frostings are too sweet.  If I wanted to eat a bowl of sugar, I would head to my pantry!  Frosting should be sweetened, of course, but in a delicately refined way.  If biting into a cupcake brings on a toothache, that might be a sign the baker went a bit overboard with the sugar.

To me, if the frosting is too sweet, or otherwise unimpressive, I will gladly scrape it off, but the underlying cake had better be good.  By good, I mean it should taste like chocolate, or vanilla, or lemon, or whatever.  Just because a modern cupcake comes with approximately 1/2 cup of frosting does not mean that the cake itself can be tasteless.  The cake portion of a cupcake serves as the base and should be a fluffy compliment to the pizazz that is the frosting.  The two parts should work together in dessert harmony to create a taste bud symphony.  But sadly, they rarely do.

Case in point: the red velvet cupcake in the photo had frosting that was rock-hard when sampled, and a lack-luster cake portion with little to no chocolate flavor.

Do you like the modern cupcake with its sky-high frosting?  What is the best cupcake you’ve ever had?  What is the worst?